After yesterday's post about phobias, I was talking with my colleague (the one who is frightened of birds), telling her of the starling roost near my house. At least they're at a distance, she said, making those fancy patterns in the sky. So I began to explain that at Plumstone...
She cut me off, couldn't bear to hear. But as you don't share her fears, I thought you might like a short extract from my forthcoming book. It's taken from an essay about the roost and I'm describing why Plumstone is so different to other roosts.
I'll let the words say the rest.
If I describe the starlings to friends the response is always similar. There is mention of their flight, the swirling forms; comparisons to kaleidoscopes, oil on water, even Disney’s Fantasia. It seems we are fascinated by their synchronicity; the apparently random yet tightly choreographed swarming, the swoops and falls and joy and delight of it all.
And most have a story to share. We’re aware of starlings gathering in cities, under piers, on marshes and reed beds; one colleague talked of the flocks she’d seen on the American Plains. Starling roosts are a seasonal staple of television shows like Spring Watch and Countryfile. On the Somerset Levels they are a promoted as a tourist attraction.
Yet when I listen to these reports they don’t resonate. It took me a while to realise why, though the answer should perhaps have been obvious. We tend to view starlings from afar. Indeed any description of the swarming presupposes we are at a remove.
What I so loved about Plumstone was the opposite.
To visit the roost that winter was to be amongst the birds. At Plumstone the starlings fly over your head; on a heavy night they will literally touch your hair. There will be hundreds by your feet, on the wires and fences, more on the barns and hedges – drinking from pools, chattering on perches, flushed skyward by the raptors. There’s a pair of resident goshawks that make their kills above the wooded break; a peregrine once stooped yards from where I stood, barrel rolling to clasp its prey from below.
Then there’s the stream of chatter, and the overpowering stench of guano. Three months of a million plus birds and the copse stinks of sweet lime. If I walked in the trees I could stand under the roost, the sky reduced to starlight by the bursting branches, my boots sticky and my coat peppered with droppings...